Blowing up the Death Star: Syria’s rebels score a direct hit
No one really saw this coming. That is, no one except for the handful of Syrian rebels who executed the startling July 18 bombing in Damascus that claimed the lives of Syria’s top intelligence and security officials. But the shockwaves of this assassination have already reverberated across the Middle East, leading political players of all stripes to contemplate the possibility of President Bashar al-Assad’s imminent demise.
Confirmed dead in the explosion, which Syrian state media blames on a suicide bomber but Free Syrian Army officials insist was caused by a remote-detonated device, are Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha; his “deputy” Asef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in law and one of the regime’s most feared strongmen; and Assistant Vice President Hassan Turkmani, a former Defense Minister.
After more than a year of being shelled by the regime’s well-equipped military and terrorized by gangs of pro-regime military thugs, the Syrian rebels’ attack was the equivalent of blowing up the Death Star: They not only decapitated the Assad regime’s top security officials, they sent a message that they could reach anyone — and any part of the country. Even if the belief that Assad could fall any day is overblown (and with such limited access inside Syria it’s impossible to know for sure) — it is clear that his hold on power is shakier than ever.
Syrian state media’s account of the attack focused on the “martyrdom” of Rajiha, but Shawkat — who only merited a single line in that same announcement — is the real story here. The defense minister, who hailed from the Greek Orthodox community, was widely considered an affirmative action hire — someone meant to keep Syria’s Christian minority on the side of the regime. Shawkat, on the other hand, is a true insider. He has run Syria’s feared military intelligence services, which is probably the only institution still trusted on any level by loyalists, and was in charge during the last gasps of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. He also often acted as a regime fireman, parachuting into trouble areas to quell dissent. Despite much resistance from some members of the Assad family to his marriage, Shawkat regularly amazed Syria observers with his ability to navigate the opaque power struggles and often-deadly intrigue that comes part and parcel with the Assad family dictatorship.